Human rights activists and the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, hailed the Burmese government's release of 56 prisoners of conscience through presidential amnesty in early October, but lament the continued detention of 135 political prisoners and hundreds of Rohingya activists.
“Last month [I found out] that the Rohingya detainees were tortured for one to two months constantly, and they are still in jail,” Quintana told IRIN in his native Buenos Aires in September.
The continued imprisonment of hundreds of Rohingya men in Buthidaung prison, 300km from the Rakhine capital Sittwe, remains a major impediment to developing sound protection of political rights in the newly formed democracy since 2011, said Quintana, who visited western Myanmar's conflict-torn Rakhine State in August 2013, and is presenting his findings to the UN General Assembly in New York today.
“Ongoing arbitrary detention is a blight on Myanmar's political progress... There is nothing remotely democratic about the government's practice of arresting dissidents,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, a Geneva-registered human rights watchdog in Southeast Asia.
Local news sources report an estimated 1,000 Rohingya are still detained (of the original 1,158, according to Human Rights Watch in Myanmar since communal violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in June and October 2012, while peaceful protesters of hydropower and mining developments nationwide face the risk of arrest for speaking out about land confiscation, according to campaigners.
Prisoners released, arrests continue
Since 2011 a total 1,020 prisoners of conscience - including student activists, former opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) members, and members of non-state armed groups - have been released, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPB), a Mae Sot (Thailand-based) human rights NGO run by Burmese former political prisoners.
“By the end of 2013, the government has pledged to release all remaining 135 political prisoners,” said Khin Cho Myint, an AAPB staffer who spent 10 years in Myanmar's prisons after her arrest in 1988 for participating in a democracy movement which saw hundreds of thousands of students in Yangon demonstrating against military rule.
"[We] are working diligently to ensure that no one remains in prison due to his or her political beliefs or actions. We are reviewing all cases," said President Thein Sein in a recent speech.
But arrests of peaceful protesters and members of nine main non-state armed groups representing ethnic minorities in the country continue.
“The authorities continue to arrest dissidents and human rights defenders while simultaneously releasing others,” said Smith with Fortify Rights.
Among those recently arrested include at least 10 local protesters against a Chinese energy project in Maday Island, and at least three demonstrators against the Letpadaung copper mine in northern Sagaing region, according to local news.
While the president has pledged "nothing less than a transition from half a century of military-rule and authoritarianism to democracy", arrests are “creating a new class of political prisoners, composed of those imprisoned for exercising their right to speak out, organize community groups, and hold protests,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director for Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
Exclusive IRIN interview with Quintana here.